Elgin Baylor believes it’s equally critical for Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol to return to Lakers

A long 42 days remain until free agency hits, but that’s not going to stop the drumbeat regarding Dwight Howard’s future.

The Lakers spent plenty of time in their exit interviews three weeks ago stressing the need that Howard returns, ranging from the front office, coaching staff and teammates alike. That sentiment has also extended toward prominent Laker greats.

“It’s important to have a nice center of his talent,” Elgin Baylor said Monday in a wide-ranging interview with this newspaper. “Who knows who’s going to be here and not going to be here. But he’s familiar with his teammates. He seemed like he was getting better later in the season and fitting in with this team. He’s the most gifted center in the league.”

Baylor made those comments at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills where he plans to auction off memorabilia stemming from his 13-year NBA career with the Lakers on Friday to benefit to-be-determined charities. But Baylor also had plenty of things on his mind regarding the Lakers’ future, including his belief that the Lakers need to keep Pau Gasol regardless of whether Howard stays.

“For his size, I think he’s the most skilled big guy in the league as far as stepping out and hitting the outside shot, passing, rebounding and blocking shots,” Baylor said. “He’s very skilled. He wasn’t involved in the offense as much as he probably should have. The coach decides it. But the guy is skilled. There’s a couple games I saw him only take four shots, while Howard had five. But the bulk of the offense should be Howard, Gasol and Kobe [Bryant]. They should be taking the majority of the shots.”

But will the Lakers have such a dynamic next season?

Howard could secure a five-year deal worth $118 million if he signs with the Lakers, as opposed to a four-year deal worth $88 million elsewhere. But Howard plans to test free agency beginning July 1 and hear various teams’ pitches before making a decision. Meanwhile, Gasol’s entering the final year of his contract worth $19.3 million. It’s unlikely he’ll be waived via the amnesty provision. But it’s possible the Lakers could trade Gasol after averaging a career-low 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting.

Clearly, the Lakers face plenty of uncertainty this offseason, including how much Kobe Bryant can recover from a torn left Achilles’ tendon that will keep him sidelined at least for another five to eight months.

“I’m sure Kobe with his injury is going to be fine,” Baylor said. “With that injury, it’s not going to be a problem. It shouldn’t because it will heal with the scar tissue.”

Baylor speaks from personal experience.

A torn Achilles tendon limited to two games in the 1970-71 season. He only lasted nine games the following year before retiring in the same season the Lakers won their first NBA championship in Los Angeles. But Baylor said he “absolutely” would have prolonged his career had the same medical technology been available when he played. That included persisting knee problems that emerged during the 1963-64 season.

“Suppose if I had that done on my knee then, I would’ve been 100 percent,” Baylor said. “When I came back, I was 60 percent or 70 percent at the most. Today it would be nothing. All the stuff they have today, we didn’t have any of that.”

Baylor also lent hysterical perspective on the importance of NBA teams having an elite center. He attributed the Celtics’ 11 championships spanning the 1950′s-60′s mostly to Bill Russell. Baylor largely credited Wilt Chamberlain for the Lakers winning the Lakers’ 1972 NBA championship. Had Chamberlain joined the Lakers earlier than 1968, Baylor maintains he “would’ve won a lot of championships.”

Does he see Howard as that next great Lakers center?

“He has the physical skills. He has the body, can run and jump. Next year, he will have a better feel of the game,” Baylor said. “But I think it would help if he would work someone like Hakeem [Olajuwon] that would help him. He’s athletic as heck for a guy his size. But it’s a question of his work on different aspects of his game, with his post work, his ball handling, passing and getting a better feel for the game. It will make a great difference for the Lakers if he comes back and plays. They’re going to be a different team if they’re without him.

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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com

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